(St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians)
1990 WFU Commencement
May 21, 1990
Dr. Thomas K. Hearn, Jr.
President, Wake Forest University
Two events will forever mark your senior year in my memory. These events have become powerfully connected in my mind. They have marked a symbolic turning point in my life—and in a larger sense yours as well. These events were the death of my father and the destruction of the Berlin Wall.
The change of the generations is a time of assessment, and I have pondered my father’s life and mine. World War II was the formative event of his life and his generation. My father volunteered, earned a naval commission, and served in the South Pacific. Almost everything about his life was changed by the war. His political attitudes were formed in the context of a war in which the moral issues were clear. He served a just, holy cause against the forces of evil. It was easy for his generation to regard all of America’s enemies as evil.
The legacy of World War II, created by my father’s sacrifices and those of his comrades in arms, many of whom are here today, was a new world order. Europe — and much of the world — was divided between communism and capitalism, socialism and democracy, the USSR and the USA. An Iron Curtain — in Churchill’s memorable phrase — was set between East and West. That curtain was vividly embodied in the Berlin Wall.
This bipolar conflict with its “hot” and “cold” wars dictated our politics and our consciousness for almost a half century. But in the year my father died, the Berlin Wall fell. The most powerful symbol of this divided world, the end of the wall marked the end of my father’s legacy. The old order passed away. My father and my father’s world were no more.
The changes of the past year have astonished the world. Communism seemed so omnipotent—fear of it mesmerized us for half a century. We half believed in its ultimate victory ourselves. Communism will not be part of the order of your century. Is this the end of history or its beginning? There are few categories yet to describe what awaits your new century. The context of life is changing. A new epoch is unfolding. This is one of those rare and remarkable moments in human history. The world’s new order awaits your creation. Your careers begin today.
The failure of communism does not mean the triumph of democracy. Communism failed because it was flawed — flawed first in philosophical and ideological sense. The Hegelian idea that we can draw charts for human history is vanity and always was. Communism went bankrupt because it could not keep its promises to its people, bankrupt because its people had no bread or soap.
There are no closed societies. Freedom rides on the technologies of information over whatever barriers are erected. The people of all nations have seen your blue jeans and heard your rock music. These are the rhythms of freedom, and the garments of a new era.
But communism also failed as a result of changes in the world that have weakened our society as well. My father’s generation rebuilt the conquered nations of his war — generously relieving Germany and Japan from the consequences of defeat. To remove their military threat, we prohibited their arms and, through what T. H. White called the “law of unintended consequences,” this prohibition helped create the world’s strongest new economies. Was my father’s war so clearly won? White remarked before he died, that Japan, and by implication, Germany, won in the marketplace the war they lost on the battlefields of Europe and in the Pacific. Did the former enemy’s military weakness contribute to their economic strength? Did our strong army contribute to our present economic weakness?
Military and economic powers historically have belonged to the same nations. Yet America in Vietnam and Russia in Afghanistan learned the limits of even the greatest armies. Someone said that the best minds in Japan and Germany build cars and electronics. Our best mind built weapons. At a recent conference on third-world debt, the U.S. contributed $7 billion in benefits, a generous gesture. Japan brought over $40 billion. Guess whose products will win those markets?
Communism has failed. We have yet to succeed. They have lost. We have not prevailed. To think of the future in these terms is to affirm the old categories. That order has passed away. Russia has been the nation we loved to hate. As the divisions and antagonisms of Eastern Europe become our problems — and not Russia’s alone — we may yet see the influence of Russia in Europe in this past half century in terms very different than those my father understood.
What will the new order be? I do not know, but if the promise of peace is to be realized in the new age, it will be because the Wake Forest motto — Pro Humanitate — becomes fact as well as principle in your generation. As Vaclav Havel, a man who went from a Czech prison to his nation’s presidency in a few short weeks, said in his moving address to Congress, “Without a global revolution in sphere of human consciousness, nothing will change for the better.” That revolution awaits your making.
For thousands of years, civilizations and people have lived side by side, but proximity has not brought cultural integration let alone human fellowship. Chernobyl and global warming have taught us that environmental problems are not national but human issues. World hunger and peace are the problems of humanity. A new perspective is required in which we see the world and its people as a human community with a common destiny. That perspective is your alma mater’s motto. With that watchword we send you to meet this exacting and exciting challenge.
If these extraordinary political and economic changes can occur without bloodshed, if the Berlin Wall can be reopened, might we not see renewed hope for the solution of other human ills? May we not see among you a revolution of hope-belief in your future and the human future — confidence that your generation will build upon the achievements my father’s generation left to you and me. This revolution of hope — and with it the rebirth of idealism among the young — can give substance in your lifetime to the ancient dreams of peace and plenty.
My father was a forceful and dominating man. As the years passed and his vigor declined, his anger would still sometimes rise, but I had become a man. He could no longer dominate me. Now he is dead. So is his world.
I will miss the ordered world of my father’s making. As St. Paul said, “The old order has passed away. Behold! All things have become new.” Commencement is a time of beginning. Yours is now the world to make anew — in gratitude for what has been, and in hope for what, with your labor, may become.